Pakistan’s election day mobile service suspension sparks digital rights concerns

Pakistan’s suspension of nationwide mobile services on election day, citing security concerns after recent armed attacks, faces criticism from digital rights advocates.

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Pakistan has suspended mobile phone services nationwide on election day, drawing criticism from digital rights advocates who label the move as ‘inherently undemocratic.’ The Ministry of Interior released a statement on 8 February, justifying the decision by citing recent armed attacks that led to the loss of ‘precious lives.’ According to the ministry, implementing security measures is crucial to maintaining law and order and addressing potential threats during the electoral process.

Global internet watchdog, NetBlocks, confirmed disruptions to mobile phone and internet services, supporting widespread user reports of outages. Alp Toker, the director of NetBlocks, expressed concern over the severity and extent of the ongoing election day internet blackout in Pakistan. Toker highlighted the undemocratic nature of such practices, pointing out that they can limit the work of independent election observers and cause irregularities in the voting process.

The suspension of mobile services coincides with a directive from imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan, urging his supporters to remain outside polling booths after casting their votes until the announcement of results. Reporting from Lahore, Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig highlighted the challenge faced by local election observers due to the interruption of internet and mobile networks, impeding their ability to communicate while monitoring various polling stations. It’s noteworthy that mobile phone services remained unaffected in 2018, a year marked by heightened security concerns following a bombing at an election rally with over 140 victims.

Authorities in Pakistan routinely restrict mobile phone access during significant protests or festivals marked by escalating religious tensions. This method uses jammers to stop explosive devices from being triggered by mobile phones, hence preventing communication between armed individuals.